Talking with Amy Walker, 2013 Thiel Fellow Chris Walker’s Mom

Link to the beginning of the interview series here.

Christopher Walker is a video game designer, programmer, and artist. After leaving college to start a software company, he created a game designed to improve spatial cognition. As a Thiel Fellow, Chris will focus on developing interactive software to teach technical skills like programming, music, and mathematics. ( thielfellowship.org)

Talking with Amy Walker, mother of 2013 Thiel Fellow Chris Walker at LisaNalbone.comAmy said they knew Chris was bright. He was interested in lots of things, quick with puzzles and liked to spout facts. But it didn’t seem like a big deal.

 “We were in DC -high achievers are the norm.  The rest of the kids were bright, too.”

 Amy concentrated on making good memories and having lots of family time. The kids are close in age, get along really well and Amy stayed at home while they were young. They had a playroom  stocked with puzzles, games and art supplies. She read to the kids a lot and put in tons of floor time. They prioritized travel and family vacations.

“We didn’t really get babysitters much since we just wanted to be together as a family.We didn’t have cable tv or a game system but we would sit around and watch PBS programs like Nova together.”

 Chris and his sister were encouraged to follow their interests, but they weren’t pushed. Chris played some soccer and tennis, but after a while it was clear it wasn’t his thing so he stopped.

 “We weren’t into forcing them to be stars like some parents seemed to do. We were fine with them trying new things, and stopping when their interests changed. But we did make them finish anything they signed up for.”

How did you find resources?

The Walker family had the means to live in an area with great resources AND take advantage of them. If the schools didn’t have a program, like computer gaming, they would research and find a program that Chris could attend. He went to a great game design program offered by Carnegie Mellon one year.  It helped that Amy was at home and available to drive the kids to their activities.

” DC just has so much to offer with all the museums, history, diversity of people and people who are aware of what is going on in the world. It was a really resource rich environment. The schools had the best field trips. If parents have the means, I say pick an area with lots of resources to raise your kids.”

 What about school?

The early years in public school were fine. Around fourth, fifth and sixth Chris was getting more interested in science and other kids were more interested in athletics. He could be a bit of an annoying know-it -all and he was starting to get teased.  So they looked for a school that could support his interests and fit his learning style. Chris had lots of interests including math, art, science, computers, and music. He was great at building things and builds all his own computers. He played trombone and had piano lessons.  He was a different kind of thinker and liked to talk about what he knew and his ideas. He could be a bit boastful and needed to learn a little humility. So they looked for a school that was the right fit.

Amy was thrilled when they found Field, whose mission is to celebrate the individual. Field is where Chris really explored his interests and came into his own. It was in the high school years they clearly started to recognize his differences.

“We started hearing from more and more teachers who had long conversations with Chris and then told us what an amazing kid we had.  It was the right environment,  academically and socially, to help him thrive.”

Amy thought Field’s studio arts and internship programs, and policy of no AP classes made a difference. In February students plan their own two week internship. Chris decided he wanted to intern in a local computer repair shop.

“Chris walked down to ask if he could intern and you could tell the shop guys didn’t know what to expect and were just being nice. I went another day to explain the program and help work out details. They handed Chris something to fix, like swapping out a motherboard. Chris finished in a few minutes and said. ” Ok, what next?” They were floored and realized they had underestimated their new intern. It turned out to be a fantastic learning situation.”

 Students at Field select a medium to stick with and do studio art every day all four years of high school. Chris chose ceramics and developed his own style of pots and design. His art and the depth of study inform other areas of his life like his game design.

Chris always pursued interests and learning on his own outside of school. And he preferred to do things his way. For instance he really sees math everywhere and he could do his math in his head. He was able to talk with Field teachers about not having to show each step since that wasn’t how he approached math. Field also had a great community and Chris made wonderful friendships.

Going from high school at Field to freshman year at Dartmouth was kind of a let down. Chris wanted to drop out because he felt he could learn more outside of class. His parents encouraged him to finish the year and then take a gap year to figure things out.

“We never imagined  Chris would do something like the Theil Fellowship or that the program would fit him so well, but it does. this is really different from our traditional educational backgrounds and we support Chris even though it’s not what we expected. We don’t know what will come next. I wouldn’t mind if he went back to school but it will be up to Chris to decide what he wants. 

 Amy’s parting advice for parents:

If you have the means, live in an area with a rich diversity of people and resources.

Explore, recognize and support what the child is interested instead of promoting the parent’s interests

Create good memories and an environment that is not too stressful, pushy or competitive.

Thank you Amy, for your words to the wise. Any mistakes are my own!  Please sign up for email updates and share this post with a friend, Thanks,  Lisa

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